Monday, June 13, 2011

A Toast to Trailblazers

Today, again, we have the interesting juxtaposition of anniversaries and birthdays of people with something in common--today, it's trailblazers!  Does Garrison Keillor notice these things and write about them on purpose?  Today's information comes from this post on The Writer's Almanac.

Today is the birthday of Fanny Burney, and all of us who are female writers--or females with dreams of supporting ourselves by whatever means--should raise a toast to her.  She was one of the first women to make a living by her writing, depending on your metric.  She bought a house with the proceeds from her third novel, Camilla, or a Picture of Youth.  There is no denying that she opened the way for women writers to be seen as acceptable. 

She wrote novels, and many of us have forgotten how scandalous the novel once was considered.  Why?  It was low brow, not a noble pursuit, like poetry.  Again you ask, why?  Probably because it was such a new form, and people could just make stuff up in terms of plot.  Shocking!

Fanny Burney is also important because of her journals, which she kept for her whole life, and in which, she wrote many observations of history, like the madness of King George and the Battle of Waterloo.

Some of us may remember that she suffered a mastectomy with no anaesthesia and lived to tell the tale--and to tell how excruciating the surgery was.  Yikes.  If you ever needed a reason to be glad you live now and to make you resolved never to time travel, studying the history of medicine will make you happy to stay put. I imagine future readers will feel the same about our time period.  Our approach to breast cancer is not much more sophisticated than it was when Fanny Burney suffered it in the eighteenth century (cut out the cancer)--we just have better pain management tools.

It's also the birthday of Dorothy L. Sayers, who blazed a trail for female mystery writers everywhere.  She was also one of the first women to graduate from Oxford. 

On this day in 1967, Lyndon Johnson named Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court.  Talk about your trailblazers.  I know that many people came to hate Johnson because of Vietnam, but it's important to remember how many changes he made in terms of making our society a more equal one.  And promoting Marshall was one of his big accomplishments.

Here's what Marshall said about the founding fathers and the Constitution:  "The government they devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war, and momentous social transformation to attain the system of constitutional government, and its respect for the individual freedoms and human rights, we hold as fundamental today."

He's right--most of our founding patriots wouldn't recognize this country, where women can have a career, where minority citizens can rise to the highest offices in the land, where one of the richest women in America is a descendant of slaves.  And we likely wouldn't recognize those founding patriots either.  Their religious beliefs would be unfamiliar to most of us:  Deists and Quakers and Unitarians (which meant something different then), oh my.

It's also the birthday of William Butler Yeats.  I could write a lengthy paper on how Yeats changed the face of modern poetry.  I could give Yeats credit for the whole Modernist movement, if pressed.  I could point to Yeats the dramatist, who was important to Irish theatre in so many ways.  I could praise the Yeats who documented Irish folk traditions, traditions which might have been lost to us today, if he hadn't championed them. I could consider the Yeats who influenced the course of Irish nationalism.  All of these faces of Yeats are important to me.

So, today I lift my berry smoothie to these great trailblazers who left a path--or a huge, wide, highway!--for the rest of us.  May I do the same!  Or at the very least, may I not squander my chances, chances that I wouldn't have had without the trailblazers.

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